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This review is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

GERMAN LESSONS Harry Mulisch, The Assault, translated from the Dutch by Claire Nicolas White (Collins Harvill) £8.95
Siegfried Lenz, The German Lesson, translated from the German by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins (Methuen) £3.95 pb.

Now approaching sixty, Harry Mulisch is widely considered to be Holland's foremost prose writer, with novels, satires, political and philosophical works, a study of Wilhelm Reich, books on Cuba and on Eichmann, as well as plays and libretti to his name. At public readings he makes a curious impression: in tweed jacket and jeans, he looks for all the world like a middle-aged academic intent on ingratiating himself with his students, and in his stern leanness he could have one believe that he lives on locusts and wild honey. In person, he seems at first austere and stand-offish, efficiently smoking his pipe and crisply reading his paper, but he willingly unbends and has a sardonically bizarre sense of humour and reserves of warmth. When I met him, we ironically found it best to talk in German: ironically, because in my own Anglo-German background there are those who fought the Germans and those who, whichever way they voted in 1933, were certainly no heroes in the Third Reich, while behind Harry Mulisch there stand an Austrian-born ex-officer who collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation of the Netherlands, and a Jewish mother whose family were among the Nazis' victims. It seemed grim that only the German language could serve both of us equally well.

The Assault, which has sold some 300,000 copies in Holland and is now Mulisch's second work to be available in Britain (Two Women was published by John Calder in 1980), confronts the experience of ...


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